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  • CHAPTER 1 - Introduces protagonist, establishes relationship to antagonist, sets tone, inciting incident takes place.


    Johnny Bueno stepped out of his car ready to make a killing, but he never thought fate would take him literally. Nestled against the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Anita Park was a beacon for the gambling addicted. A holy ground for the hobbyist. And a den of damnation for the foolhardy. And Johnny, hustling toward the track entrance determined to make the last race of the day, was nothing if not foolhardy.

    He glanced at his watch, a military-issued Elgin handed down by his grandfather—and counted thirteen minutes until the start of the next race.

    “Program?” A man walking towards Johnny held out a rectangular booklet published by the racetrack containing all the official racing facts of the day. Without breaking stride, Johnny nodded his head.

    “It’s a lucky one,” the man said.

    “Ah, Come on. Don’t jinx me,” Johnny said.

    At the clubhouse gates, he pushed through well-heeled patrons spilling from the track in their sports coats and sundresses, in search of the next party. Past the clubhouse, the partiers gave way to a more diverse, less exuberant group—a young laborer in his dirt-stained uniform, the Grandma with her coiffed hair, the professional gamblers and the aluminum siding salesman working from home. Program in hand, Johnny cut through the crowd to the entrance gate, swiveled his hips and traversed sideways so the turnstile wouldn’t crush his genitals.

    The statue of famed Seabiscuit stood alone in the paddock walking circle, which meant the horses were already on the track. The tote board above the paddock stalls showed betting closed in ten short minutes.

    Johnny dashed across the courtyard and ducked out of the drizzle into the back side of the grandstand. The damp air was laced with cigarette smoke, beer and a touch of cigar. Worthless bet slips crunched under his feet as he made his way to the betting windows. Meanwhile, a track junky wearing a Breeders Cup 2009 t-shirt and Members Only jacket picked through discarded tickets, in search of a lost winner. In an odd dance, an employee with a broom and dustpan followed close behind. Johnny couldn’t decide if the track junky was the most hopeful person on the planet or the most desperate. Upon closer evaluation, the scale tipped towards desperate.

    Johnny navigated clear of the track junky and arrived at a large open space flanked on his left by 20 betting windows. Five windows featured human tellers and the rest were self-betting computer kiosks. Lines were five to seven people deep, so choosing the correct line was of the utmost importance. Jonny surveyed a bank of monitors and found it was seven minutes to post.

    Live tellers were to be avoided at all costs. Clerks were faster than any machine, but no match for the hunch-backed better with their nose in the program attempting to make every wager possible. He passed one window where a teller glared in judgement at a bespectacled man in a dandruff dusted winter jacket. He was leaned over the counter calling out bet after bet from the notes scribbled in his program.

    “Two dollars to win on 4, two dollars to place on 4, two dollars to show on 4; Fifty cent exacta box, 1,2…” and on and on it went.

    Because Johnny never actually witnessed one of these creatures leave a betting window, he continued to the self-service kiosks. He soon found a home where people appeared to move quickly. He was pleased with his choice when the line of five turned to four after only a few seconds.

    A monitor mounted above the kiosk showed the horses on the track. His bet of the day from his boss, Mr. Wink, flashed on the screen. Classy Lady, a gray, three-year-old filly was in blinkers. Yet to win a race and break her maiden, the odds on the monitor showed 20-1. The jockey in red and gold silks was once a celebrated rider but had descended in the ranks over the past few years. There wasn’t much to like about the story. Bad horse, blown out jock. At least they wouldn’t be hard to spot on the track because they’d be in last place. Five minutes to post.

    The energy in the crowd became more frenetic. Voices clamored, while minutes evaporated, and seconds took center stage. Johnny was third in line, confident he had time to make the bet. Mr. Wink, a notorious crime boss reputed to have buried more bodies in the Mojave Desert than Mickey Cohen, wasn’t someone to disappoint. It wasn’t so much his rage, but his follow through with said rage that concerned Johnny.

    Standing between him and the lady at the kiosk was an overly tan, fidgety middle-aged man who half-turned to Johnny and cracked, “What’s this broad doing?”

    Sunglasses rested on his forehead, beer and program in his left hand, pen in his right. The guy was a grinder. Someone who always tried to squeeze in another second where it didn’t exist and expected the same of the world around him. Before Johnny could reply, the lady made her bet and was off to find a spot on the rail. Four minutes to post.

    The grinder raced up to the kiosk and got to work, checking notes in his program, and feverishly tapping at the screen. Like a whirlwind, the grinder finished up his many bets, grabbed his tickets, took a swig of his beer and dashed to join his ilk along the wire. Grinders mixed with track regulars and junkies in a small patch of concrete along the finish line, adjacent to the Winner’s Circle, where jockeys, trainers and owners posed for victory photos. The twenty feet separating the winners from the losers was short in distance, but the difference between the two groups couldn’t be starker. Two minutes to post.

    Johnny found himself face-to-screen with the betting kiosk. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small piece of paper that read:  11th RACE SANTA ANITA – #3 CLASSY LADY as well as a slip of paper with a bar code. He slipped the latter into the machine that displayed an available balance of $15,000. He navigated the touchscreen to make his bet; $15,000 – on horse number three – to win.

    Ridiculous, he thought. How much good that money could do for the world. Specifically, his world. It was enough to wipe out all his credit card debt. Never had starting over at zero dollars seemed so possible. He’d been in the same position many times before but never had the courage to act. In an uncontrollable impulse, he tapped the cancel icon, collected his voucher and stepped out of line.

    He was invigorated; his face burned and ears rang. He snapped back to reality when the track announcer proclaimed, in a fine British accent, that the horses were approaching the starting gate. That was Johnny’s que to find his place along the rail.

    Johnny exited the sheltered confines of the betting terrace to find the drizzle had turned into a sprinkle. The rain wasn’t hard enough to disperse the crowd, but the track was wet from the showers earlier in the day and getting sloppier by the second.

     As rain pelted Johnny on the cheek, he felt a gust of cold air rush across his temple where hair once grew thick. He bristled at the thought he was slowly losing his mane and didn’t look forward to the next fifteen years of wondering when to finally grow a goatee. He secretly admired the eighteen-year-old bald guy that instantly aged after high school and then never again. The announcer proclaimed the horses had reached the starting gate.

    Halfway between the betting concourse and the rail Johnny bumped into the track junky as he lunged for a lost ticket that danced in the wind. Anxious rumblings came from bettors still in line at the windows, while the grinder feverishly searched for a better vantage point.

    Johnny’s steel-toe boots—real shit-kickers—made quick work of the slick concrete. With a newfound confidence and time to spare, he passed the club house bleachers and box seats of the grandstand to join the crowd of hard-core gamblers along the rail next to Winner’s Circle.

    “Who you got?” Oozed a rich bass voice.

    “Number 3.” Johnny fibbed because Wink had eyes and ears everywhere. Then he turned to see a skinny black guy in his forties, far too small for his voice.

    “Number 3? Classy Lady?” The man asked.

    “Yeah, Classy Lady. That’s amusing?”

    “Shit man, that dog’s a sucker bet.”

    “What makes you say that?” Johnny asked.

    “That horse a dog, man. See, and the owners know it. So what they do is give that horse a name that makes people want to bet on it. They get their rich little minds together and come up with the most sentimental shit you’ve ever heard. Like Classy Lady. Shit, every man spending a day at the track with his girlfriend has to bet on it and every woman wants to bet on it…reminds them of themselves. Shit. Lookin’ at you I can tell you’re betting it because of your mom. Real classy lady, huh? Yeah, I’ll bet if she knew half the shit you were in to, she’d disown you right quick.”

    The man had a point.

    “Guess we’ll see.”

    “Yeah, we’ll see your ass back at the ATM.”

    Johnny was pleased that he and the track regular agreed on the horse. It reinforced his decision, even if he couldn’t let it show.

    A sudden hush fell across the crowd as the last horse entered the outermost stall of the starting gate. Without delay, the stall doors swung open with a bang and the horses bore down and lunged into action. The eager British voice bellowed across the loudspeaker that the horses had left the starting gate.

    Classy Lady, the large gray horse with the red and gold silks and the long-in-the-tooth jockey, broke cleanly from the gate and charged to the front of the pack along the inside rail. Johnny didn’t need to see anymore. He knew how the race would end. Just like the time he stole a candy bar from the liquor store in eighth grade. Or the time he slept with his girlfriend’s best friend. His life had become a collection of misadventures executed in slow motion, each time his conscience telling him not to steal that, touch that, or covet that.

    Mr. Wink was not one to be fucked with, and Johnny knew it, but the uncontrollable urge to screw up his life was just too strong.

    Classy Lady galloped through fresh track, spraying mud into the blinders of those behind. Leading down the backstretch, the unlikely front runner was ahead by three lengths going into the final turn.

    Classy Lady eased slightly, as if to recharge for the straightaway. Coming out of the final turn, a horse in green and white silks made a break and squeezed between Classy Lady and the rail. The horse then drifted out and opened another lane along the rail for a horse in blue and gold silks to fill. The three horses battled for position, coming within inches of bumping one another.

    The crusty old jock atop Classy Lady steered the nag hard to the outside, freeing the duo from the congestion along the rail. The large gray broke hard and made her move down the homestretch. Johnny jumped as high as he could to get a better vantage point. Unsuccessful, he grabbed a pair of binoculars from the guy next to him.

    Fuuuuuuuuucckckck…he couldn’t believe his eyes. Classy Lady was still in the lead.

    “Damn, you know how to pick ‘em.”

    The horses approached. Perspective made it tough to see who was ahead. In a thunderous moment, they passed. Classy Lady leading by half a length.

    Johnny returned the binoculars and turned away from the rail.

    “Hey man, drinks on you. Where you going?”

    “To throw up,” Johnny said.

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